A library trip

Late yesterday, I walked my seven-year-old to our neighborhood library. He grumbled about having to go, preferring to watch a little TV, but found several books.

This morning, I noticed he’d sorted his books into two piles. “Wait, what?” I said aloud. I picked up the stack including the book I’d seen Li’l D reading at bedtime. I carried them to my bedroom, where my kids have (for whatever reason) decided to congregate today.

“Did you already finish reading these?!” I asked.

“Yeah,” he intoned, not pausing his video game to reply.

“Dang! Good job, kid.” 

With four books read in fourteen hours and four books left unread? We might just be back at the library when it reopens on Tuesday …

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Hope in history

My last post, “Austerity the Dangerous,” summarized what I’d taken away from Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. I mentioned I’d had to read slowly to ensure I grokked enough to proceed.

After I wrote that post, I picked up a copy of Richard D. Wolff’s Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens. Within reading the first couple of essays, I wished I’d read it first. Wolff explains a lot in clear, straightforward language. The “key purposes of austerity policies,” for example, are “to (1) shift the burden of paying for crisis and bailouts onto the total population, (2) reduce the economic footprint of the government, and (3) reduce creditors’ concerns about rising US debt levels.” 

(As to number three, Wolff sums it up thusly: “because big banks and other large capitalists are among the major creditors of the US government, they wanted signs that their crisis-increased holdings of US debt were safe investments for them. Austerity policies provide just those signs.” Basically, to sum it up, austerity policies show investors that the government ranks paying lenders back as a far higher priority than, say, the health or employment of its citizens.)

While walking my dog a few minutes ago, I saw a chart that (1) made my blood boil and (2) reminded me yet again why understanding history is important.

From my last year of reading, I understood that a memo written by then-future Supreme Court Justice Powell in 1971 hugely shifted the U.S.’s economic and political history. Basically, Powell said that U.S. business was getting the shaft and needed to combine its various actors to change that situation. In response, U.S. business began acting in concert to ensure it succeeded–over labor and human rights advocates–in shaping the nation; the more resources for business, the better.

While lots of folks point to 1980–the beginning of Reagan’s presidency–as the beginning of U.S.’s takeover by corporation (“inverted totalitarianism,” per Wolin), business won some huge victories against its “detractors” in the couple years just prior. Powell had had his way, so that the foundation had already been laid  for Reagan and his cronies. 

(So sad for so many lives that this jackhole later became a Supreme Court justice! Business and other elite interests were given great power long before Citizens United.)

With each page of just about everything I read, I understand how the foundation for business supremacy was being crafted for at least decades before Carter’s presidency. Still, some sentences jar me especially as they remind me how much our (mis)understanding of history influences what we understand of now.


Referring to the above grid, Wolff writes, “After the war, corporations went to work to change the federal tax system. Not only did they succeed in shifting the tax burden from corporations to individuals already by 1960, but that shifting had gone on steadily to the present.”

Further, he summarizes more succinctly than anyone I’ve read so far, “The US federal tax system that right wingers portray as burdensome to the richest Americans allowed them for the last two decades to gather still greater income than everyone else. The US federal tax system enabled greater inequality.”

None of this was inevitable. It was shaped by people with shared vision and commitment. To move toward a different system–one which favors human life over corporate profits (and their executives’ obscene pay and bonuses)–will take like shared vision and commitment by people with different ideals.

In my vision, food, education, health, and shelter are human rights which want of profit cannot overcome. The U.S. tax system is completely overhauled so that corporations pay much, much higher portions of their income to taxes than do individuals with actual bellies to feed and thirsts that cannot be quenched without funds, given how privatization has granted these things to corporations (for their profit) at the expense of human wellness. Storing funds in offshore tax havens is criminal, with consequences for evasion that would help dramatically increase tax revenue to pay for life-improving human benefits. If corporations thrive, in my vision, it is because they’re bringing just benefits to all, not crushing more and more human lives so their balance sheets warrant gross bonuses.

Seeing anything like this come to fruition seems impossible … but then, the more I read history, the more I understand how today’s impossible was yesterday’s actual.

I didn’t see it a year ago, but today it’s crystal clear:

There’s hope in history. 

Austerity the Dangerous

I recently shared a short conversation with my husband. That exchange revolved around the book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.

I’ve finished the book, which was a more challenging read for me than most of my political reads so far. I’m glad to have read it, however slowly I did so!

While austerity might sound like a pretty dry topic, it’s far from that. As a policy, it’s already destroyed countless lives and livelihoods, but continues to be touted as a necessity by the same folks who reap tangible rewards from others believing it:

That austerity simply doesn’t work is the first reason it’s a dangerous idea. But it is also a dangerous idea because the way austerity is being represented by both politicians and the media–as the payback for something called the “sovereign debt crisis”–is a quite fundamental misrepresentation of the facts. These problems, including the crisis in the bond markets, started with the banks and will end with the banks …

The cost of bailing, recapitalizing, and otherwise saving the global banking system has been, depending on, as we shall see later, how you count it, between 3 and 13 trillion dollars. Most of that has ended up on the balance sheets of governments as they absorb the costs of the bust, which is why we mistakenly call this a sovereign debt crisis when in fact it is a transmuted and well-camouflaged banking crisis.

Blyth explores the political history of this oft-refuted, still-touted dangerous idea. He explains how the few purported austerity success stories weren’t especially successful, and how many have required huge distortions of fact to even present illusions of success.

Some of the minutiae were hard for non-economist yours-truly to understand deeply and integrate with existing understandings. Even so, I understood the broad strokes, as well as austerity’s profound dangers for most of the Earth’s population. I also understood the grave injustice of governments passing on bankers’ exorbitant failures’ fees to folks least able to afford them. Perhaps, Blyth concludes (emphasis mine),

we should have let the banks fail. Yes, systemic risk says otherwise. But if the alternative produces nothing but a decade or more of austerity, then we really need to rethink whether the costs of systemic risk going bad are any worse than austerity we have already, and continue to, put ourselves through.

Bailing led to debt. Debt led to crisis. Crisis led to austerity. Perhaps we could have avoided this sequence–as this book has shown, there were moments of choice. There was nothing inevitable about austerity–even if its root cause is a too big to bail banking system stuck inside a modern gold standard/monetary doomsday device that seems to have limited the options to “add central bank liquidity, squeeze the budget, and pray.”  

As an added bonus, Blyth made me laugh probably fifteen or twenty times while reading this book. He’s such an engaging, hilarious speaker, I should have expected this. Since I didn’t, it was a treat to find the same wry wit in his written words.

If you’re not inclined to read a whole book on austerity, I suggest looking up Blyth and giving him a listen!

Founding Myths

arundhati.pngLast Thursday, I readwalked outside L.A.’s Aratani Theater while waiting to hear Arundhati Roy speak. Though I’d received a copy of her new The Ministry of Utmost Happiness with my ticket, I was reading another book: Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past.

I finished Founding Myths just before the program (which was so moving I cried one half-syllable in). The book takes apart thirteen different American founding myths, many–despite having been debunked–still passed along as truth in U.S. textbooks. More than that, it explores why those founding myths hold such power … and how much power they continue to have.

I recently wrote about Winner-Take-All Politics on my main blog. One quote I’d hoped to include but couldn’t quite fit in that post was as follows:

That we tell the Everest saga, and so many others like it, as one of individual initiative is revealing. Such a view is deeply rooted in our culture. Observers of the United States have long identified the tendency to see the world this way as distinctively American. More than most societies, Americans believe that people rise or fall as a result of their own efforts, and therefore get what they deserve. Critically, when we say this is a nation of individualists, we don’t just mean Americans embrace individualism as a social ethic. Underpinning this ethic is a tendency to interpret the world in highly individualistic terms …

This preoccupation with specific personalities and insistence on attributing everything that happens to the qualities of individuals is a form of blindness. We see individuals, but not the organizations that help to pool their resources and can vastly extend their range of social action.

But for Founding Myths, I’d have gone on thinking this “form of blindness” was a phenomenon of the last few decades. Founding Myths revealed otherwise, demonstrating how such blindness was cultivated over centuries to foster a pliant and politically disengaged populace.

Take, for example, the tale of Paul Revere, who barely warranted mention in historical texts before Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took literal poetic liberty with his story more than a hundred years after it transpired. Longfellow’s poem, which was treated as source material in many subsequent texts, brought people to worship the individual Revere and what he represented, all while failing to address the hard work a great many “country folk”  had done to prepare for battle for months prior. While ignoring that several others rode that night, including one unnamed messenger who “successfully delivered [the] message … three hours before Revere would mount his horse.”

Sam Adams was elevated for different reasons:

Not wanting to grant legitimacy to any form of protest, conservatives in the 1760s and 1770s maintained that all troubleds in Boston were the machinations of a single individual. In the words of Peter Oliver, the Crown-appointed chief justice who was later exiled, the people themselves “were like the Mobility of all Countries, perfect Machines, wound up by any Hand who might first take the Winch.” Mindless and incapable of acting on their own, they needed a director who could “fabricate the Structure of Rebellion from a single straw.”

According to this mechanistic view, one man led and everyone else followed.

Like distortions around Paul Revere, those around Sam Adams were quite purposeful:

Without Boston’s Sam Adams, there might never have been an American Revolution,” the Tories once said, and today we are saying it again. This is not a good sign. The reason we can pass off Tory tales as truth is that we have unconsciously adopted their way of looking at political processes. The tory way of thinking, to which we have regressed, sees common people as “perfect Machines” who need someone else to tell them what to do. One man leads, while the rest follow adoringly.

Had I not kids and tons of work to do, I could go on and on. Because I have plenty else to do, I’ll conclude by saying: This book is a quick, engaging read, and was well worth each of the 798 pennies I paid for it (yay, clearance!). I’d recommend checking it out if you’re interested in probing your own blind spots, as I’ve become in probing mine.

There are reasons for the stories we tell about our past and our present. This book especially helped me see both the embellishments and their democracy-subverting rationales … all while reminding me how much richer my life is for understanding that the present, far from being without context, is instead a (slowly evolving) continuation of all that preceded it.

 

The Reckoning

Me [tapping a book’s cover]: With all this financial stuff, I have to pause after reading each sentence to make sure I understood it.

My husband, Anthony: Hear that!

Me: If you’d told me a year ago I’d be sitting around reading books entitled things like Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea for leisure, I would not have believed you.

Anthony: I don’t know if it’s for leisure. It’s more like … The Reckoning.

[fade to the sound of shared chuckles]

See the past, improve the future

lvhI recently walked through the bookstore nearest me and picked up a copy of every Verso book I could find. One of those books was Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World.

Davis does an extraordinary job documenting how the “third world” didn’t come barren and broken. Around the world, it was made that way by colonizers, who brazenly, brutally exploited land and native peoples for their own economic gain. Though a handful of individuals protested in horror, many colonizers watched dispassionately as people (they didn’t recognize as people) died by the millions: “imperial policies towards starving ‘subjects’ were often the exact moral equivalents of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet.”

The “most devastating nineteenth-century droughts,” writes Davis, “were decisively preconditioned by landscape degradation, the neglect of traditional irrigation systems, the demobilization of communal labor, and/or the failure of the state to invest in water storage.”

To be clear, this post isn’t about history for history’s sake. Understanding this history can help improve the future of the world we leave to our children. Continue reading “See the past, improve the future”

finding the words

Once upon a time, I read one book at a time. Today, it’s uncommon for me to be reading fewer than five or six simultaneously.

Different moods demand different books. Yesterday, despite having another 20-30 books waiting on my to-be-read shelf, not a single one* struck my fancy. This resulted in a trip to the library (nothing for me; five books for my seven-year-old), followed by a browse through the nearest bookstore.

My boys were boisterous, which meant I had a hard time focusing on books for more than 3-4 seconds at a time. Still, I found a handful of books I really wanted to read right now.

I finished Medea Benjamin’s Kingdom of the Unjust earlier today. I haven’t been shy sharing my dismay over the U.S.’s longstanding alliance with brutal Saudi Arabia, but that was based on fragments of knowledge. Benjamin’s short book provided me both a framework–versus shards of disturbing fact–and context. Goodness knows I’ll find nothing like either in U.S. corporate media!**

Now I’m working on Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. I suspect this, like Kingdom of the Unjust, is one I’m going to read pretty quickly.***

I’ve already fought back tears a few times while reading. Everything I’ve tried to explain about poverty’s devastation to some “bougie-born” friends (as I referred to them in a cranky March post), online and off, is addressed early and beautifully here.

When I began trying to find my own political vocabulary, I couldn’t quite explain what that meant. I knew that some people have studied and found patterns in things I’d never even recognized as existing before, and I figured I’d both learn more about the world and how to express patterns I’d begun to see by reading such learned people. I’d benefit not only by their vocabulary, but by their examination of the patterns those specialized vocabularies represented.

Already, a few dozen pages into this book, I’ve found two words that will enable me to explain so much, so much clearer. Just last week, I tried to explain why so

many middle- and upper-class Americans
can’t conceive
of the vastness of suffering
borne of American poverty

They can’t see poverty in their neighborhoods or workplaces, so

poverty and its
horrifying
consequences
are invisible
to them

Now, thanks to Putnam, I know what to call the space between objective and subjective reality: “perception gap.”

Moreover, class segregation means that members of the upper middle class are less likely to have firsthand knowledge of the lives of poor kids and thus are unable even to recognize the growing opportunity gap. One reason, in fact, for including life stories of young people in this book is to help reduce that perception gap–to help us all to see, in the words of Jacob Riis, a social reformer during the previous Gilded Age, “how the other half lives.”

The patterns I’ve witnessed have already been given names. The words are out there. I just have to find them.

Goodness knows I’m looking. Continue reading “finding the words”